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You usually know that Clive Owen is on his way to an interview because of the loud, baritone laughter that rumbles down the hotel corridor before his arrival. Despite his intensity on screen in films including The International, King Arthur and Children of Men, in person the Hollywood star with humble roots in Coventry, England, is relaxed and down to earth.

Even today in Berlin, when talking about his film Shadow Dancer, a deadly serious thriller set during the Troubles in Northern Ireland, the elegantly besuited actor's good humour still shines through.

This isn't to say he takes his work lightly, on the contrary. "I've always been very serious about the craft of acting and the craft of making a movie," Owen says.

An Oscar-nominee for Mike Nichols' Closer, Owen claims he has never chosen a film because he thought it was going to be successful or lead to better things.

"The best career move is to be good," he says. "It doesn't matter if it's a big film or a small film: be good in it and that will sustain a career."

You can see this philosophy at work in Shadow Dancer, which is screening as part of PIAF's Lotterywest Festival Films program.

Directed by James Marsh, the man behind the Oscar-winning documentary Man on Wire, the film is a modestly scaled production. However, Owen's performance as an MI5 agent grappling with his conscience after coercing an IRA operative (Andrea Riseborough) into becoming an informant is one of his best.

He almost didn't do the film, though. A family man who lives in North London with his wife, former actress Sarah-Jane Fenton, and their two daughters, he had just finished work on Hemingway and Gellhorn opposite Nicole Kidman and was going to take a break, when the offer came through.

"I've realised that I don't like, and I don't function very well, jumping from film to film. I like to take time, I like to prepare, I like to get ready and give something its proper time. So the rhythm's changed a little in terms of I need those breaks," he says.

Living on film sets, moreover, can make life feel weirdly unreal. "It is a heightened world, the world of a set, and I think it's a very grounding thing just to go home for a few months, hang with the kids."

Still, the charming 48-year-old puts a lot of value on scripts and Shadow Dancer was just too good to pass up. "It was really tight," he enthuses. "From the minute it started, it gripped me."

He loved Mac's first scene, where the agent gives Riseborough's Colette McVeigh the option of either working with him or going to prison and never seeing her son. "I thought 'What a great start to a movie'." Mac thinks he can protect McVeigh but gradually discovers that his bosses have their own plans.

There are no good guys and bad guys in the film. Mac himself is drawn in shades of grey while it isn't always clear how we're supposed to feel about McVeigh, even though the first time we see her she is placing a bomb on the London Tube. The Troubles are the context, not the subject. And Owen and Marsh both insist that, while the setting is political, the film itself is not.

"This is a character study and it's the drama of what the characters are going through that the film rests on," says the actor. "Everyone's in a terrible situation, everybody is trapped in a very difficult place, and I think that's the film's strength: it's not judgemental; it's showing characters that are struggling in a very difficult time."

That time seemed a long way off when Owen (who appeared in a play in Belfast during the Troubles) looked at pictures from the period pasted round the walls of the film's production office. The tensions - as demonstrated by the sectarian violence in Belfast during Hillary Clinton's recent visit to the city - still exist, though. So would Owen have done a film that was potentially politically divisive?

"It would depend," he says. "You would have to put the piece of material in front of me and I'd tell you once I'd read it if it was worth doing or not. I wouldn't feel that I had to particularly steer clear of something. It depends on what it is and how it is done."

As a working-class youth growing up in Coventry, in Margaret Thatcher's Britain, Owen experienced two years of unemployment before getting a place at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts. It was a depressing time.

"I would get up around lunchtime and go to the pub and eat rubbish like bags of chips, then just sit around or sleep," he recalls gloomily.

He has never forgotten what it was like to have nothing. Even though he is now in demand and can confidently turn down projects because there are always other options on the table, his feet remain firmly on the ground.

"What that's given me is I respect and appreciate, every single day, everything I've got, because I still know people who haven't got any money. I'm incredibly fortunate."

Today, family and work are his priorities, and together sustain him.

"There's no point in having a great, full, successful career and not having anything else in your life," he offers. "Having the balance of the two, for me, is where it's at. To be able to be creative and satisfied as an actor, and have a lovely family at the same time, cracking that, I think, is the key."

If he does ever win an Oscar, Owen has the makings of an acceptance speech right there.

Shadow Dancer screens at Somerville on Christmas Eve and then from Boxing Day until December 30. It is then on at Joondalup Pines from January 1 to 6. All screenings are at 8pm.